I’ve been fascinated by the future ever since I was a little kid. Although, come to think of it, in the 70s, most of the places I got my ideas about the future were from TV and movies, and most of them were about the present. In fact, Star Wars claims to take place in the past! But shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind brought visions of the future into the present, as if to say the future was already here, but we just didn’t know it.
When I was a teenager, in the 80s, I was obsessed with science fiction novels. I read fantasy, too, but science fiction was smarter, and carried the implied promise of events that might really happen. Since then, I’ve come to realize how much of science fiction is just fantasy in disguise. The future is an alternate reality version of the present, just like fantasy books are. Sure, it’s a truism that science fiction is really not about the future, or other planets: it is about here and now. But to see that, you have to read between the lines.
The same is true of more serious attempts to predict the future. Sure, if the point is actual prediction, as opposed to pure entertainment, maybe there’s more integrity. But I think a significant percentage of futurism is just a different kind of science fiction. It might eschew well-drawn characters and complicated plot constructions, but it’s still fiction. It’s still imaginary.
It’s kind of amazing how much of the human experience lives in the imagination. Memory. Alternate history. What could have been. Alternate presents. What should have been. The future. What will be. Other places where we are not. It’s all speculation, construction and artificial.
The more I think about the future, especially, the more I wonder if it’s good for me. For us, as a society, to obsess about what might happen tomorrow, next year, in a hundred years.
Something I noticed a long time ago was that you could classify people based on how far into the future they let their imagination go. But that’s just scratching the surface. The future is today, as you know, with some things added and some things taken away. Which things will be added or taken away, and in what order, makes all the difference. To some degree, it’s about time scales, but not absolute ones. The most significant changes, from a human perspective, are geographical: the social and physical environment. Who will you meet? Who will you lose? Where will you go? And of course, when will you die?
While people have the most impact, we have become so obsessed with machines (“technology”) that our thinkers are not thinking about those fundamental human relationships. They are mostly thinking about the economy—jobs, money, gadgets, vehicles—and the environment.
Some people are enthusiastic. Some are discouraged, or even terrified. The world could chage dramatically. It could be the end of us all. It could be heaven on Earth.
It seems like, whatever happens, it will be faster and louder and more chaotic. But in many ways, it will just be more of the same.
Yes, it will probably be different, superficially. Navigating the future may be a challenge. But at the heart of it, unless we are all killed off by robots, it will still be human. Human loves, fears, hopes, desires, and relationships.
Technology is an amplifier. With a rock, you can kill one person. With a nuclear ICBM, you can kill ten million. But it’s not the rock or the ICBM that is the real problem. It’s the murderous hatred in the heart of the person who uses that weapon.
If we create artificial intelligence, whether that AI is friendly or hostile is mostly a question of the intention of its programmer. Although, it is worth noting, a truly autonomous AI will make its own choices and define its own goals. But it’s fundamental nature will be whatever its creator decides. (There is, I should add, a risk that its nature is not at all understood by its creator, and that whatever personality emerges from its design is completely accidental and unpredicatable. But we don’t even know if such a machine is even possible. So we can’t even measure the risk.)
The attempt to create artificial intelligence, or flying cars, or holodecks, or even a Luddite utopia, are not driven by knowledge of the future. They are driven by human emotions and human imagination. For every person who sees beauty in an choice—whether to invent new technology, or to elect a certain person to political office—someone else sees horror. One person’s dream is another’s nightmare. But it all starts out as a dream.
What’s fascinating, and tragic, is not the dream, but the person having the dream. Why does one person dream of robots, space ships and living on other planets? Why does another person dream of money, sex and power? And a third dream of magical schools and fantastical beasts?
The future is what we long for and what we dread. It all comes out from inside our heads.
People will invent things. Disasters will happen. But if you want to understand the future, you need to understand the people who will make it happen. Including yourself. And isn’t that the hardest thing?